The novel starts with a Pushkin in exile. It seems he was at odds with the Tsar, Nicholas I, during most of his life. However, he is invited to come back to St Petersburg and meets for the first time Nataliya. She is only 13 years old, but he is fascinated and lost. They marry four years later. The novel mostly lingers on their married years. Pushkin is a man of the world, had many love interests and was a very experienced man. Nataliya is an innocent girl, having grown up in a family from the higher echelons of society, but somehow fallen down due to improper behaviour of the parents, plus lack of funds. Pushkin is not the first choice of either Nataliya or her mother, but in the end they both accept his proposal. This is a time when Pushkin feels ready to settle down and raise a family. Nataliya, on the other hand, is overwhelmed coming into society, attending balls, flirting, dancing and the excitement of being close to the imperial family. She is so much younger than him and her life is just starting. Although warned by friends of Pushkin, to be careful since gossiping comes easy to this circle, she continues on a path on which there is no return. Her actions, as well as Pushkin's pride, lead to the cold, devastating January morning in 1837, when Pushkin is deadly wounded in a duel with his rival, Baron d'Anthès.
The book mostly covers the relationship between Pushkin, his wife and the supposed lover. Pushkin is troubled by his work (censorship and difficulties to write what he wants to write), money to pay for the lavish lifestyle, Nataliya's family, his own family and friends. But we meet many more people surrounding Pushkin and there are some surprises along the way. I don't know so much about Pushkin's life, so it is difficult to say where this historical novel is dealing with facts and fiction. Having read a little bit on the net, the grand design of the novel seems to relate to real events. Glen Petrie, has introduced a conspiracy by 'enemies' of Pushkin which I am not sure has any relevance in real life, but who knows. The writing feels genuin so I imagine that it is well researched. However, it makes for an exciting latter part of the book, and it is first here that the novel becomes a bit of a page turner.
Glen Petrie, is a historian, teacher and journalist (I think; it is difficult to find much information about him) and has written many books. This is well worth a read if you love historical fiction about real life characters. You get a hint of Russia at the time, but there is no in-depth story of either Pushkin, Nataliya or the Tsar, which supposedly is out of scope for a novel like this.
Petrie ends with an Epilogue and Afterword, which seems a summary of facts. The Epilogue is entitled "For many years to come I shall be beloved by the ordinary people", and this is probably no understatement. The Afterword is entitled "The great and good Pushkin should have had a wife who understood him better". History can be very hard on people like Nataliya. Especially if they are married to a 'hero' of some kind and is not able to live up to the high standards that are set. Nataliya left for the countryside after Pushkin's death, but came back to St Petersburg and the social scene some years later. It is rumoured that she was the mistress of Tsar Nicholas, although he never formally acknowledged it. Petrie says though, that "there can be no doubt whatever that Tolstoy modelled Anna Karenina on her, and particularly his heroine's unflawed beauty and restless, suspicious unhappiness in Book Seven of the novel".
Last but not least, the word is Nataliya's.
"Her children of both marriages reported her as being an unhappy woman. Her youngest daughter - by Peter Lanskoy - recalled her saying shortly before her death in 1863, at the age of fifty-one, "They say people should never speak evil of the dead, but I know I shan't be allowed any peace, even in my grave."